Creating a Home with Personality

[Note: I’ve just re-discovered this draft from several years ago. I’m feeling a bit self-conscious about posting it, because it’s so different from my usual stuff, and most of my readers won’t care, and the example photos, being from my own real life, are so obviously not perfect, but one of my goals for this year was to burn through the backlog of prepared posts I have sitting around. So, here goes, and bear with me.]

A little bit of a departure from the usual subject matter, but yesterday we wandered through Crate & Barrel and I started thinking about how it really does require thought and effort not to end up with a house that looks exactly like everyone else’s. And yet there are a few blanket rules that make that effort almost certain to be successful.

living room 2

Later, we added more bookshelves and more art.

Never fill a whole room from the same store or the same “line”.

Two of the same item (say, matching armchairs) creates symmetry. But with the exception of dining chairs, any more than that creates boredom. While the mix we have now isn’t something I want to keep forever, I would rather die than walk into a furniture store and buy a matching sofa, armchair, coffee table, end table and china cabinet which 1.5 million other people have also used to define their living room. Balance is more important than identical.

Sure, it takes more time to source pieces individually, and in the meantime there might be a few gaps. But that leaves room for serendipity – the happy chance discovery. The trinket you found on vacation (or, in our case on more than one occasion: the antique furniture found during a road trip that gets squished into the back of the car with the dog). The anniversary gift. Another shelf for your growing collection of ___.

a variety of pictures

A flour sack from the Congo; our dog; Louis Armstrong playing my husband’s trumpet; a wedding photo; a handwritten note; two snapshots of family from our rehearsal dinner; and an example of my husband’s photography.

You don’t need mass-produced art.

Much like the above, just because you have a blank space on your wall, don’t go down to Bed Bath & Beyond and buy a poster that sort of matches your colors (and those of 20% of the rest of the country). I really believe everyone, no matter their budget, has within reach an interesting, unique and meaningful assortment of art. A few options to use alone or in combination:

  1. Family photographs – think beyond annual school pictures and family portraits. Consider candids, pictures of scenery from your last vacation or just a shot of that building across town you’ve always liked.
  2. Talented friends – surely you know someone who would be willing to draw a quick sketch for you. (Even a doodle on a napkin can make an interesting statement in a nice frame.) If you have the money, consider commissioning something. Depending on the degree of difficulty and the closeness of the friendship, this may not cost more than that poster you were considering.
  3. Family heirlooms – I don’t mean this has to be a priceless Rembrandt handed down through the generations. But that little old still life that hung in your grandmother’s kitchen might look nice in a new frame.
  4. Gifts from friends – A friend of ours gave us a piece of a French flour sack from the Congo, which we framed and hung. But what about a letter from a friend who has beautiful handwriting, or a greeting card given to you on a special occasion?
  5. Go on a field day – Visit your local art museum and buy the print of your favorite painting. Is it mass-produced? Yes, technically. But the difference between that painting and what you find at Bed Bath & Beyond is that what you find at BB&B is meant to be liked by the largest possible number of people. Great art is meant to speak to each individual. I find myself wanting to buy portraits of not-conventionally-attractive people who look like they’d be interesting to talk to – most famously, one I dubbed “The Portrait of the Disagreeable Man.” You are almost guaranteed to choose something different.


Pieces like this are a dime a dozen at thrift stores, and a color change can breathe new life into them. Image from somewhere or other on the internet.

Sometimes all you need is paint.

I know of a woman who bought a hideous scroll-fronted dresser at a thrift store for nothing. When covered with a coat of silver paint, it was unrecognizably attractive, and when it was too large and heavy to move to her new apartment, she fielded several offers and sold it at a profit on Craigslist. Alternatively, I’ve seen dressers listed for $1600 whose only distinguishing feature was that someone had sanded some of the paint off.

This doesn’t only apply to furniture. With its long tangerine wall, our friends’ apartment couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anywhere else – and somehow seems so “them.”

toothbrushes in a yogurt jar

Find a substitute/ use as unintended.

When we couldn’t find an over-the-toilet shelving unit we liked (much less at a price we liked) we hung a wine box there instead. When we couldn’t find a toothbrush holder that would fit our fat-handled ones, we used a glass yogurt jar. Our dining room wall art is actually a fire screen that was missing a foot. You get the idea.

galvanized pipe shelves at Abricott

Make, don’t buy.

A charming local restaurant proves that an attractive bookcase can easily be made from galvanized pipe and a few planks of wood. For curtains, find a fabric you like. If sewing (or having it sewn) seems like too much trouble, have it cut at the store to the length you need. Add some iron-on hemming tape and some clip-on curtain rings and you’re done.

Nobody has every good idea. Find inspiration from others.

I admit I’d never have thought to use wine boxes as bookshelves and I would never have known about galvanized pipe. Even the best designers I know – or maybe I should say, especially the best designers I know – are always drawing inspirations from elsewhere. The beauty of it is that the same idea will turn out differently from person to person: your family photos will look different from mine, and your repainted furniture (in blue or green or…) will look different than the piece painted silver. And that is where personality comes through.

Because the point isn’t to have the “perfect” house. (If in doubt that I really believe this, review the photos of our unfinished and cobbled-together apartment above.) The point is to have a house that you enjoy, that expresses you. It’s fun to go to someone’s house and be able to see something about who they are, what they enjoy, what’s important to them, and that they’ve put some thought into how they live.

I thought this was a departure from my usual theme and in some ways it is. (Also, again, my apologies to my readers, most of whom probably don’t have quite the same passion for home design that I do.) But in others, it’s not: decorating this way does take more work, more time, more care. It’s not the easy way to do things. But for me, as usual, I find the hard way is more worthwhile and more rewarding in the end. So I guess it is about eschewing easy, after all.

9 thoughts on “Creating a Home with Personality

  1. 1. I’ve always wanted a blue velvet sofa. Your’s is stupendous.
    2. It’s possible that I may have a Rembrandt etching hanging over my desk (as close to real as I can get – from his plates and bought at his house) but it has great sentimental value so it still follows your philosophy.
    3. I tell people that everything in our house is custom made or off the curb. :)

  2. I enjoyed this article very much! I, too have a passion for decorating, and I agree with you on all points. I have used those rules with every house (2) I have lived in, and did the best I could do with the numerous apartments we had had. Even though you don’t have matching furniture, there has to be a theme, a color, something, to tie it all together. The fun part was finding that tie. I don’t always know why something works, but like the Supreme Court justice said about porn–I know it when I see it!

  3. Thought provoking AND reassuring — good combination! With small children around (okay, almost school aged children) we have avoided investing in any significant furniture purchases “because the kids would ruin it” –which has increased our eclectic assortment but also encouraged us to develop our own decorating style. Our new house came highly decorated (colorful Venetian plaster wall treatments, heavy custom floral draperies, pale pink molding, shiny white chair rail, selections of wallpaper and stenciling, custom stained glass light fixtures, not all of these in the same rooms) and we haven’t made an effort to change anything because we haven’t figured out what we want instead. Gradually I think we will swap out decor as it needs to be replaced, easing into our own style. As a starting place, I’ve been framing the kids artwork alongside their photos and sneaking in local art purchases as well.

  4. And P.S. Next time you visit, I’ll take you to the Waverley Antique Bazaar. Humungous treasure trove of recycled, repurposed and just-waiting-to-be-loved-again items…Vicki would love it too I think 😉

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